The Nerve and Arrogance of Missionaries

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Everyone is now overfamiliar with the event of several weeks ago, when an American missionary mother and her daughter were killed by a bullet fired at their plane, which a Peruvian fighter pilot decided was running drugs. While it was first a poignant human tragedy, it was also a political one, especially since American antidrug "advisers" were actually on the mission itself. The lively issue was thus exacerbated by the consequences of expansion of the "drug war" in Colombia, and its impact on surrounding countries and South

American political integrity in general. The event is also alarming because Colombia is a vast country in which an earnest American high-tech adventure may well suffer the revisit of an earlier jungle exercise in moral remedy called the War in Vietnam.

But the presence of the missionaries raises a more basic question: what were they doing there in the first place? What on Earth gives some people the right to decide that their view of God or nature or destiny is the right one? What permits them to conclude that other people pointlessly labor with false gods and false values and need to see the light? What profoundly arrogant sense of the correctness of their ideas empowers missionaries to wrestle with the lives of strangers who may be wearing weirdo native gear? And the same applies to potential converts wearing the college sweatshirts encountered by the pairs of young Mormon missionaries?prim in their white shirts, men with thin black ties?earning their bones of piety by roaming State College USA for lost souls in deep sophomoric peril.

In the fuss over the human loss and its political implications, what was largely overlooked is the extraordinary vanity and presumption that underlie the zeal of missionaries. They make it their goal and active business to disrupt the most fundamental ideals and values of the people on whom they inflict themselves. The measure of missionary success is how much dissatisfaction they can create among the often-poverty-stricken people they encounter. Missionaries only fail when their victims are holywaterproof.

Missionaries are frank imperialists. But because they operate in the spiritual realm, they continue to enjoy a fuzzy kind of permission to conduct a kind of business that is largely impossible in other less ethereal spheres of life.

Think about how extraordinary what they do actually is. They are likely to have to spend considerable time learning the language of the people with whom they are going to live. They may experience physical threats from people opposed to their mission or confounded by its presumption. They may have to endure living conditions that are treacherously inferior to those they could enjoy at home. This is a real sacrifice even if no one asked them to make it?the dead missionaries lived on a cramped houseboat in northern Peru. They have to live among people whose central philosophies of life they are obligated to directly challenge. And they have to do so in return for wholly conjectural rewards that are mainly in the realm of spirit. As one associate of the dead missionary said, "If I get scared and run off, the people on the river don't get saved. The goal is to get my ticket to heaven, and take as many people with me as possible."

Even though that one-way ticket to heaven may be the primary goal for their personal growth, missionaries are usually concerned with practical matters too, such as drilling water wells, providing medical facilities and establishing schools that provide education along with religious assertions. These obviously worthwhile activities might not exist were they not the religious icing on the cake of practicality. No other private person, or even social service organization except a missionary one, might even consider providing such difficult services in such difficult places.

But it seems objectionable and kind of cheap to help people only because you think their moral and spiritual lives are seriously imperfect and they should accept your particular set of beliefs. The same issue plagues the awkward Bush plan to supply funds to domestic religious groups providing social services of various kinds. The fear exists that these groups will want to deliver salvation with soup and strive to convert the souls of those whose bodies benefit from public money. The separation of church and state has graced American history. While this maladroit and unduly pious initiative is not the worst threat in the world to it, it achieves few benefits that could not be otherwise accomplished.

The same is true outside the U.S. The greatest spread of the missionary movement accompanied the imperial expansion of recent centuries, largely or at least most massively of Europe. That period of history is fortunately over. But religious elements of it continue, and continue to insult the integrity and honor of the groups with which they interfere. The amazing conflicts generated by social differences in the flavor of souls continue their dispiriting grip over the sense of human well-being in dozens of communities around the world. Muslims in Bosnia trying to return to their homes and rebuild a shrine are beaten and the structure trashed. The Pope treks to Syria in what was defined as an ecumenical crusade and while he's there the boss of Syria announces that Catholics and Muslims must now unite smoothly against Christ-killer Jews.

Even though there's currently a massive and intricate global fuss about globalization, few of the whiners about the process see that one of its initial features was the missionary movement. This has been going on for hundreds of years, well before McDonald's produced a Triple Fry-up or Starbucks a Double Malibuccino. The first defined globalizers were not seeking the almighty dollar. They were serving the Almighty. They trashed local customs, costumes and credos in the process, without understanding the meaning of their subversive impact or the power of their psychopathic jungle righteousness.

People can and do believe what they like and in sensible countries such as this one they can properly do so, so long as they don't violate the rights and wrongs of fellow citizens. It is a hard-won arrangement, and it works. But the same high standards of civility should apply to other countries too, even more strictly. Those who claim that they are civilizing others should not be given visas. It is almost a toxicity case for the World Health Organization. The missionaries on the Amazon who suffered that awful death continue to play gospel music on loudspeakers as they cruise the river. They should shut them off and come home.

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